The nation is focused, as we should be, on the recent massacres in Gilroy, Dayton and El Paso. Those gun massacres in California, Ohio and Texas were horrific. They grabbed our attention. Their frequency is increasing. But so is the kind of overall gun violence we see daily on the streets of St. Louis. The terrifying mass shootings are just the tip of the iceberg — they comprise less than 2% of all firearms incidents.
The bigger focus should be on the gun violence that, drop by drop, fills buckets of blood every day. If we want to make a significant impact on this daily violence, we must look in the mirror.
There are almost 400 million civilian-owned guns in the United States — more guns than people. The vast majority of these guns are purchased for self-defense. Does gun ownership make us safer? There are isolated cases where a good guy with a gun saved the day. That scenario happens rarely — about 1.6% of the time — even less frequent than mass shootings.
In reality, gun ownership makes us more vulnerable to violence, not safer, and it has a ripple effect. When someone purchases a gun for self-defense, anyone associated with that gun owner becomes less safe.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gun deaths and injuries are on the rise. In 2017, about 40,000 people died. Guns now kill more people than car crashes. (Gun injuries are less likely to make the news than fatal ones. So a significant undercount is possible. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, the CDC recorded 85,000 firearm injuries.)
About 98.4% of those gun deaths were for reasons other than self-defense. They include:
• domestic violence;
• angry interactions between family members and acquaintances;
• accidental shootings involving children;
• stolen guns used in street crimes and homicides
• suicide by the gun owner or other family member; by far this is the most frequent, comprising more than 60% of all gun violence.
These are damning statistics. The National Rifle Association has worked hard to amplify fear and limit comprehensive information about the danger of their product. A similar playbook was used by lobbyists for Big Tobacco.
I see the effect of this misinformation campaign on my family. For many years, some members owned guns for sustenance hunting. In the last 15 years, a majority of my family members have purchased firearms specifically for self-defense. They keep these guns in their homes, in their purses and in their cars. No family member has been burglarized or attacked, but they feel compelled to have these lethal weapons to protect themselves and their loved ones from that perceived threat, ignoring the real one. My family is not atypical.
Since self-defense gun use is so rare, and unintended gun use so common, it is crucial that we be aware of the risks associated with owning such lethal weapons. Our ignorance has been deadly.
In 1999, the majority of U.S. citizens believed that gun ownership made one less safe. That percentage is now reversed, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in 2018.
More people are afraid, so they buy guns for themselves and family members. That puts more guns in circulation, which leads to more gun violence, which makes people more afraid, which promotes more gun sales. The gun manufacturers and NRA win. Citizens die.
We didn’t ban cigarettes or cars in order to make the public aware of the dangers of smoking, drinking and driving, or using seat belts. But we saw the positive value to society of putting reasonable limits on these dangerous products and educating the public.
This isn’t about hunters and law enforcement professionals who generally have been trained to use their weapons responsibly and for valid reasons. This is about the rest of us, the majority of gun owners who buy guns because we have been propagandized to fear each other and believe it’s manly to “pack heat.”
Why not implement sensible background checks and licensing of all guns? Why not pass a federal law permanently banning bump stocks and rapid-fire, magazine-fed semi-automatic rifles designed for infantry use.
The NRA should stop peddling fear and return to the original noble mission of promoting gun safety and hunter education. We must be honest with ourselves. More guns do not make us safer. It’s a tragic myth.
Catherine Garner is a St. Louis mother and volunteer social worker.